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Friday, August 2, 2013

MAJOR FEATURE: Independent developers and IP; Trials, Tribulations and Opportunities

Being a startup or independent developer is a significant business challenge. Many of the experienced game developers in the industry are joining people just out of university to give the indie life a go as it does offer a great deal more creative control over the projects that they undertake, but by the same token it offers no real job security, and freedom aside, there are challenges in building games as an indie.

One of the greatest of these challenges is one of the first decisions that needs to be made before starting a game project; where does this game come from?

Do you, as an indie developer, go looking for a license to create a game based on a well-loved character or franchise and gain a measure of guarantee that there will be some interest in the market for the game? That’s one option, but it raises issues around financing. The most popular franchises tend to be prohibitively expensive for independents, and considering that these companies need to run “lean” to minimise costs, working with established characters is a luxury few can afford.

The other option is, of course, is for an indie developer to produce their own intellectual property, or IP. This has the marked advantage of being free in terms of up-front costs; after all it just needs the game developer to have a good idea. But by the same token IP development brings with it a host of other challenges; it can cost more time and money as ideas are played with and ultimately scrapped. Critically, it can also be a far riskier venture. How many independent studios are able to afford the kind of focus grouping that allows them to determine the commercial viability of a title? Not many, and as such it can, at times, feel like a case of throwing darts at the dart board and hoping one sticks. For startups, that can mean a quick exit from the market if one of these ideas fails to stick.

We’ve seen that happen often - the Apple App store especially is a graveyard of noble ideas. Digitally Downloaded covered the sad fate of Australian developer, Paul Turbett, and his attempt at building a new IP with Star Hammer Tactics in 2012. Despite being available on the PSP and PlayStation 3 via the PlayStation Minis platform, and despite later releasing on the iPhone and iPad, the game (temporarily) drove him out of the games industry when it underperformed. The reason? In Turbett’s own words it is simple; “I wanted to make a strategy game that was really easy to learn, and that used a "core gamer" theme, in this case, sci-fi. I think in hindsight, maybe there isn't a market for that combination. A simple strategy game might work, but "core gamers" aren't interested, or a sci-fi strategy game works, but needs to be more complex. So maybe I misjudged whether there was/is a market for what I was making.”

It’s even riskier when it comes to retail games, where publishers will nearly never take a risk when it comes to independent developers and new IP; skip down to the case studies at the bottom of the feature for an example of what happened to one independent developer when it attempted to get a fresh IP published on the Nintendo DS as a retail game. That game was eventually released in a very different form on the Nintendo 3DS eShop.

With these challenges and opportunities in mind, the purpose of this feature is to look at what independent game developers can do, and have done when creating IP, and provide some ideas from people who have been through the process with what they should look for when developing IP and what pitfalls they should avoid.

The opportunities of IP

Tim Shafer; showing the world how indies
create IP and sell it to the market
Despite the inherent risks in developing fresh IP, games industry veteran, John Passfield, believes that it is the way to go for independent game developers.

Passfield, who now runs an incubation program for new IP development called Right Pedal Studios, has previously held senior roles at some of Australia’s largest game developers, including founding Krome Studios and then acting as the Creative Director at Pandemic Studios and in that time has worked primarily on new IP development.

“I would always argue that you should own your IP. This gives you absolute freedom over how to position your game and brand,” Passfield said. “Licensing a well known IP could help with marketing, but the better known the IP is, the higher the licensing costs.

“If you are sure that the costs to obtain that IP and the fans is less than the cost to acquire the same number of users, then it could make sense. But you always run the risk of adding value to a brand that you ultimately don’t own and could be passed on to another developer after you build up the game IP.”

According to Passfield, the real advantage of the IP development comes once those initial few games have been completed. Smart indie developers are then able to leverage the IP across additional titles in a way that would just not be possible when working on licensed titles.

“For smaller indie developers they can leverage the brand and the visual assets in other projects,” Passfield said. “Gavin Bowman from Retro Dreamer has done a great job in repurposing his IP across a number of games including Ice Cream Drop, Ice Cream Jump, Happy Poo's Revenge, Happy Fall, Sneezies and Sneezies Match. This has allowed him to produce a large number of polished games faster and increase his fan base allowing him to cross promote new games to these players.”

“Another advantage is that if you do get that breakout hit, like Temple Run, Cut the Rope, Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja you have the opportunity to license to other mediums, and as the IP owner, you receive the licensing fees.”

So those indies that do hit the proverbial gold mine with a hit franchise can create additional revenue streams around their product that would be impossible using another company’s IP.

Gunman Clive; the tale of a tiny indie's success
on the most unlikely of platforms
The downside; IP development isn’t all fun and games

Developing new IP is not easy, however. Passfield recommends that developers don’t count on landing a publishing contract easily, for instance.

“It’s always a challenge to get people excited about a new game idea. Publishers are risk averse and tend go with known properties - hence the glut of sequels and licenses in the console space,” he said. “With a new IP, the character, story, world and other brand elements are new and at this point, secondary to the core of the experience, which is gameplay. So the biggest pitfall is not being able to convey to potential business partners how good the game will be.”

This is not impossible to overcome, as Passfield says: “The best way to do this is to produce a prototype with tight controls and a super fun core mechanic - even if you use programmer art. If the game is super fun to play with bad art, it will only be enhanced with final art and extra polish.” But that said, developers might want to consider developing games towards platforms they can publish on first - Apple and Android platforms, for instance, have low barriers to entry for developers.

In the event that developers do decide to bypass the publisher and self publish on a platform like iOS or one of the console digital download services with low barriers to entry, they’re still going to face challenges in the marketing. Only this time, rather than selling to the publishers, the developers will need to sell direct to the consumers.

“Coming up with a concept which is unique enough to be seen as new and fresh while similar enough to established genres or tropes to appeal to a wide range of users,” Nnooo creative director, Nic Watt, said. One of Australia’s most successful self-publishing developers on Nintendo’s digital platforms, Nnooo has had significant success with its Pop, MyLife Collected and escapeVektor franchises. It too has struggled to find traction at times, however - its success when attempting to take the Pop franchise to the iPad and iPhone was minimal.

Developers need to understand that each download or retail channel is different, and the product that they’re looking to produce needs to fulfil a need in the customers of that specific channel. It’s no good to simply assume that a game that was successful on one platform will be equally successful on another.

The reverse is also true. Take for instance Bertil Hörberg, the independent developer of Gunman Clive. Hörberg released this game on both the iOS App Store and Android marketplace initially, with limited success. For $AUS1.99 a difficult platformer (not a game that many mobile players will necessarily sign up for) by an unknown developer was quickly lost amongst the many other games released daily on these platforms.

However, when it was later released on the Nintendo 3DS eShop, the game performed far better and in fact outsold the combined total of both iOS and Android versions of the game; this is despite there being many, many more iOS and Android devices in the market.

What Hörberg found was an audience that are fans of platform games. It is a genre Nintendo is famous for and people tend to buy Nintendo consoles for Nintendo games. Gunman Clive is also the kind of game that many would consider better played with buttons; a hardware feature that would have been a turnoff to platformers for iOS and Android gamers made the game interesting to Nintendo 3Ds owners. Hörberg’s story is simple proof that different audiences have different general tastes and so developers need to be producing games with those audiences in mind to see maximum success.

Articulating the value of a product to an audience is a challenge that organisations of all sizes struggle with, but the unfortunate reality is that independent developers lack the resources that the large corporations have to invest in marketing and focus grouping products to find the desired target audience. “If your game is too different and outlandish it can be hard to find a market to sell it to or for users to understand why they need to play it,” Nnooo’s Watt said.

“Unless you are a company with a lot of time and money it will be very hard to explain your message to your prospective users. The Wii U is a good example of this where Nintendo initially struggled to be able to quickly and easily describe what the Wii U is and why you would need one.”

So what can an independent developer do to counter this challenge? If at all possible, invest in good PR management. PR is a profession that is built around having contacts, understanding how to engage with the market and gain maximum exposure for a product with the people that need to see it. It’s not necessarily a skill that independent developers have, and leveraging those contacts that a good PR agent will have with the media will help to get the good word out there on your game.

At the Gates
Succeeding with new IP development

Whether an independent developer is able to afford PR or must do the marketing alone, it is of course just as important to build a game that people want to play in the first place. How can an indie developer hope to build a successful IP, let alone a franchise?

Developers need to take advantage of every resource they have access to. Jon Shafer, who boasts an impressive portfolio of big-name game franchises, including Civilization, is banking on the value of his own name to help sell units. Other indie developers don’t have the same luxury, but the lesson here is clear: leverage every opportunity get the name of the IP you’re looking to build up out.

“It's kind of obvious, but sometimes overlooked by the gaming community that IP is hugely valuable. Many games have built-in sales of millions or even tens of millions simply because of the name on the cover. We all like to think innovation rules to the day, but that is in fact not usually the case,” Shafer said.

“With At the Gates I made a conscious decision of using my name in the official title of the game. This makes me a little uncomfortable, as I do think it short-changes the other amazing developers putting their all into the game, but if you're not making enough money to stay in business that does them even fewer favours!”

In addition to banking on his name to sell the game, Shafer turned to Kickstarter to earn enough revenue from At The Gates upfront to complete work on the game.

Kickstarter has been a topic of debate within the games industry since Tim Schafer hit mega-success with it and his Double Fine project. It’s not a guarantee for money, but a smart independent developer (and one that has a bankable concept, as Shafer enjoyed with “being the guy who made Civilization V looking to make a new strategy game”), Kickstarter can achieve two things: firstly, and most obviously, it can finance a game’s development. An independent studio with $100,000 sitting in the bank account is in a far better position than one that has nothing.

But perhaps more importantly, a smart independent developer can use Kickstarter as a proof of concept. Lots of Kickstarter projects fail to hit that initial goal and therefore don’t earn any money. But in that failure perhaps lies the secret to success - a developer can go back to the drawing board, figure out what about the project failed to inspire the mass market, and save themselves from a costly development project that people wouldn’t have bought into. It’s free market research, essentially, and it immediately resolves some of the issues that the likes of Nnooo and Endgame Studios encountered with the development of their own games.

If this is the cheapest and most effective for an indie developer to gain access to a global focus group, then perhaps every indie looking at building a new IP should seriously consider running a campaign. Not out of expectation of it being successful and earning the money, but simply to avoid some of the traps that Engame Studios fell into. There is no room for guesswork in IP development, and so Kickstarter’s greatest value for indies IP development is as market research.

“I think one of our first mistakes was not doing any market research. We originally targeted the game as a kids IP because that seemed to be a match for the demographic of the Nintendo DS,” Endgame Studio founder, Grant Davies, said. “The reality was that the DS had quite a large 18+ demographic and that our game was very retro so we really should have been targeting at those gamers who grew up playing retro platform games such as Mega Man rather than kids who had probably never heard of hardcore platform games like Mega Man.”

So how should an independent developer approach a Kickstarter project? According to Shafer the great big secret is in starting small, doing good work and building reputation over time.

“Tim Schafer is now one of the most beloved figures in the business, and was able to raise several million dollars in just a few weeks. Why? Because he's been making great games for 20 years. His new game didn't even have a name, but everyone knows they can trust him, and that gives him the ability to launch a new IP and make it work. But that's not the case for everyone,” Shafer said.

“If we'd tried to raise 500k for our Kickstarter it would have failed, no doubt about it. We have to scale our expectations and type of game to the size of audience we can reach. If At The Gates does really well that will allow us to raise the bar a bit next time.

“Ultimately you have to earn attention and trust the hard way - producing solid titles for years and years. Unless you can afford to spend (and probably lose) millions and millions of dollars there's really no easy answer or silver bullet.”

And in that is perhaps the greatest piece of advice that a developer can keep in mind. It’s the most simple of lessons that is often forgotten: be realistic about your goals. “If you're launching a new IP with 2D art, a small team and budget you can't expect to sell millions of copies. You make progress and spread the word as best you can, but you always need to keep an eye on the big picture,” Shafer said.



Case Study 1: Building a franchise out of a “>”

escapeVektor
Australian developer, Nnooo, has managed to build multiple franchises out of some remarkably simple ideas. Its breakout hit was a simple arcade game in which players popped virtual bubbles on the Nintendo Wii (Pop), and it then built a productivity apps franchise using the Nintendo DSi as a platform (MyLife Collected - a series of notebook, postcard and diary applications).

escapeVektor is its most ambitious IP to date, however. From the start the company had the intention to make the game a multi-platform release, but a lack of initial resources had the team settle on producing the game for a single platform - Nintendo’s WiiWare digital shop on the Nintendo Wii console. “When we started escapeVektor it was initially aimed at being a multi-chapter series for WiiWare, DSiWare, PC and PSP,” Nnooo creative director and founder, Nic Watt, said. “During development it became apparent that we would not be able to afford to complete the PSP and PC versions, and that the PSP market was shrinking, and so we had to start culling platforms. We were developing the game with an external coder which also made development take longer as it was harder to solve problems due to time and location differences.”

The project was fairly ambitious for a team that consisted of just a few people. Though Nnooo was able to design levels fairly quickly and efficiently, the size of the team still meant that even with some clever tools, game development took a substantial amount of raw time. “As Dave, our programmer, saw I was doing level mockups in Illustrator he developed a tool which would take svg files exported from illustrator and convert them into level files,” Watt said. “This meant it was really quick to mockup a level, export it and test it in game. As there were only two of us working on the project Dave made use of his existing engine so he could focus on the gameplay and UI elements while I made all the assets and levels for the game.”

The team brought on an intern from Qantum University to design more of the levels for future-planned releases, but those would never see the light of day on the WiiWare platform. Unfortuantely for the Nnooo team, by the time escapeVektor was released on WiiWare, there was almost no consumer interest in the platform, and the game badly underperformed as a consequence.

“We released escapeVektor: Chapter 1 on WiiWare to critical acclaim but due to the then dwindling market on WiiWare we had less than amazing financial success. We decided that since we had a game with such critical acclaim behind it that it would be sensible to bring it to Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita,” Watt said.

“As both were new platforms at the start of their growth cycles rather than old platforms at the end of their life we thought that this would also help sales. We were fortunate enough to get some Screen NSW funding which helped us employ two local contract programmers. This meant we could bring the full development in house making communication and development control much easier.”

Now better-resourced, Nnooo also decided that the “chapter” approach would not work for the game’s release on the new platforms. Instead, the team decided to roll all four chapters into one single mega-release. And it is indeed a large game - there are 150 levels in the final version of escapeVektor, as well as online leaderboards and the game takes advantage of the unique features of each handheld console.

“We started development in August 2011 and decided to develop a technology layer or engine which would sit between the existing game code and the platform it was running on,” Watt said. “The idea behind this was that we didn't have enough time or expertise to write our own graphics, UI, sound and gameplay engines so we would use middleware provided for free from Sony and Nintendo instead. This meant that the PlayStation Vita version uses Sony's middleware but via our engine and the Nintendo 3DS uses Nintendo's middleware again via our engine.

“This strategy meant that we could develop for both platforms simultaneously and not only utilise our engine for future games but also add additional platforms easily. In comparison our past games had been closely tied to the host machine and middleware making it much harder to port them to other platforms.”

Watt is referring to its experience with Pop here. When the game was originally released on the Wii it was a major hit, as it was a launch title for WiiWare. Subsequent attempts to port the game to the Nintendo DSi (DSiWare) and iPhone and iPad took longer than ideal and didn’t return the same value to Nnooo thanks to that more difficult porting process.

By the start of 2012, Nnooo had the frame for the game up and working on the Nintendo 3DS. It contracted out the port to the Vita game, but was able to do this at minimal expense thanks to the way the engine could now be easily adapted to different hardware. “A couple of months later the Vita version was also up and running,” Watt said. “We then spent the remaining time adding new features, polishing the game, optimising the framerate and adding the online leaderboards.”

Now the work begins

With the game starting to draw towards completion, Watt and the team then went on a promotional tour. They visited GDC, E3 and Gamescom, as well as smaller events like the EB World Expo in Australia.

“E3 in particular was really good as we there are always a lot of journalists in town and we had some good contacts we could meet up with. We spent most of E3 and Gamescom meeting with Sony, Nintendo and our various press contacts,” Watt said.

“Our meetings with Sony and Nintendo were particularly valuable as they gave us insight into good marketing strategies, sales figures and also got us good face time with the people responsible for deciding what would be featured on their respective storefronts. These meetings resulted in both our games, Spirit Hunters Inc and escapeVektor getting great coverage on the storefronts in the Americas, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.”

For an independent developer, timing the release perfectly is critical. Pick the wrong time to release and the game will get lost - either amongst the other major blockbusters or a simple lack of interest during an off period.

For Nnooo, it was the Christmas dollars they decided to gun for. “We were really keen to get escapeVektor released before the 2012 holiday season and the team worked flat out to achieve this,” Watt said.

“As we were pushing against the Christmas deadline for submission to Nintendo and Sony we didn't have much of a marketing window, maybe a few weeks. The time we spent talking to journalists at GDC, E3 and Gamescom earlier in the year really paid off as they were all keen to get review copies of the game. And once we sent out our press release we received a whole heap of review code requests from sites from all round the world who had already heard of escapeVektor: Chapter 1 on WiiWare. So our initial escapeVektor IP, even though it didn't make us much income, has really helped us market the full game on Nintendo 3DS and PS Vita.”

Nnooo got its goal release date - escapeVektor hit the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita download stores in December 2013, almost simultaneously across Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and the US (though the Vita version of the game was delayed slightly in the US alone to January 2013).

Time will tell if this game can succeed where the WiiWare original ideal faltered, but if nothing else, the critical reception to the game has been generally very positive; despite a Metacritic average of 75, many other critical reviews of escapeVektor, including our own at Digitally Downloaded, have own scored it substantially above the average.



Fractured Soul – A Never-Ending Story

By Grant Davies, originally posted at the Endgame Studios blog on November 8, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

(http://www.endgamestudios.com/blog/?p=7)

Fractured Souls
This piece was originally written by Grant Davies at Endgame Studios and published on November 8, 2011. It has been republished verbatim here, and chronicles a near-perfect case study of the challenges that an indie developer can go through in attempting to get a new IP published at retail.

Fractured Soul has since been successfully launched on the Nintendo eShop for the Nintendo 3DS, but only after an incredibly complicated and morale-draining process that took over seven years to come to fruition;

With all the indie studios starting up around Australia and the world these days, I thought it might be interesting to provide an insight into the potential difficulties of getting a game onto a store shelf. For other folks, this tale might be good for a healthy dose of schadenfreude.

Way back in 2003, Nick and I started Endgame with the vague idea of making original games our way. When the Nintendo DS was announced in 2004, it seemed like a great opportunity to produce some innovative original game concepts. We wrote up five ideas that each took advantage of the DS in a unique way. We then pitched them to the handful of publishers that we knew. One of the concepts was a very early version of Fractured Soul –called Slidatron at the time. The high concept was a shmup game much like Ikaruga; except where Ikaruga flipped colours on the same screen, Slidatron was split across both screens of the DS.

Partly because of our lack of solid publisher contacts, partly because of the inauspicious beginnings that the DS was experiencing at the time, and partly because all we had was a bunch of words on a page, Slidatron didn’t get very far.

We were convinced that gamers would embrace the concept, but without any funding it was going nowhere fast. Distracted by other fee-for-service work, it lay dormant until the end of 2005, by which time we had enough cash in the bank to pay for a smattering of concept art, so we packaged it up into a funding proposal to show to Film Victoria.

Fortunately for us, Film Victoria saw the merit in the idea and approved a small grant for us to develop a prototype. In early 2006, we began full-steam development of this prototype with a view to showing it to publishers at E3 that year. Unfortunately, development of the prototype was delayed, thanks to an incompetent solicitor and a previous customer who was suddenly unable to pay for months of work. We were cash-starved and unable to move the project forward until we could access the Film Victoria grant money. This unfortunate combination of events compacted the development time until E3 and no doubt had a significant impact on the prototype.

Early on in development, we came to the realisation that this game could work in a much more interesting way as a platform game. It suddenly seemed obvious that this was the right direction to move the project forward: we had substantial experience in developing platform games, including seeing how the industry leaders develop platform games having recently worked with the source code to Rayman 3, and this spin on the platform game genre had never been done before. Luckily for us, Film Victoria again saw the merit in this idea and approved the changes.

We built the basic technology on the DS, and then set about designing some puzzle scenarios. The first puzzles were extremely encouraging – they were fun to play, and added a totally new dimension to the platform game genre – a genre of which we were avid fans.

With some rough puzzle designs on various pieces of paper (possibly napkins), we started to concentrate on what would ultimately form the prototype level. The big question we kept coming back to was: “how difficult should we make the prototype?” There’s no doubt that switch-screen-platform gameplay can be extremely challenging yet it could also be extremely simple. “How quickly should the game ramp up?” we asked each other, “and how difficult should it become?”

The conclusions we came to were, sadly, terribly wrong. We reasoned that the switching mechanic was what was awesome about Slidatron. It was the selling point. It’s what differentiated it from every other game that had ever been made before it. Therefore, we concluded that there was no point in holding back: we should hit the publishers with the (most difficult) puzzles that best showed off the mechanic in its most unique form, and we should hit them with these puzzles from the get go.

It was fundamentally flawed reasoning on two counts: first, we were omitting the crucial part of teaching the player our radically new gameplay mechanic and simply launching them into the deep end, and second, we made the hopelessly misguided assumption that employees of publishing companies had core gaming competence.

With that decision made, we had sealed our fate for E3 and the immediate beyond. Like the Titanic casting off from Southampton, we had a fatally flawed design, and we were headed for iceberg E3.

Putting aside this level design misstep, and a few other fairly minor design kinks, we knew we had a solid demo. For someone competent enough to play it, it showed a unique and fun gameplay mechanic, on top of robust technology, and some pretty decent art to go with it.

Still with limited publisher contacts, we pre-booked as many meetings as possible for the show (which amounted to probably eight or nine) and prepared to do the awkward cold-calling dance that so many developers know only too well.

We worked up until 4am on the morning of the flight to the US – grabbed two hours sleep, then boarded a flight to LA.

The range of responses at E3 was broad, though even with our poorly designed prototype, we received some overwhelmingly good responses – so good, in fact, that they felt like publishing deals. However, we were soon to learn that when publishers say “well, sure, it seems like a slam dunk to me!” they can often just as easily mean “it’s unlikely that you’ll ever hear from us again”. As the show went on and we watched representatives from various publishers attempting to play the game (or even operate a DS) it became painfully obvious that not only had we made a grievous misjudgement on the level design of the prototype, but also that the guy on the other side of the table had barely even played a game in his life.

This was still one of our first trade shows, and certainly our first attempt to pitch original IP to publishers, so our pitch was somewhat disorganised. It was the very beginnings of me formulating two of my golden rules on pitching to potential customers:

1) Never let the publisher play your game unless they specifically demand it (preferably, just show a video, and give the code after the show for formal evaluation), and

2) Only ever show the bare minimum required to sign a deal at any stage. Showing or saying too much and can only expose reasons for the customer to reject the proposal.

Both of which were routinely violated during E3 2005.

Despite enduring some meetings with publishers that on paper should have gone much better, we nevertheless felt that there was strong interest in the game, and that this was the right time to sign a DS game. The DS market was just starting to really kick into gear.

We’d also hired some representation help for the show – one guy in particular who was quite charismatic and who therefore handled all the publisher contacts. When we returned to Australia, he unfortunately disappeared off the face of the Earth, and publisher emails were left unanswered. By the time we’d discovered this unfathomable act of gross negligence, the trails had gone cold, and it was too late to pick up the pieces. Publishers had signed other titles in Slidatron’s stead. And then there were the publishers who during the show seemed to think Slidatron was the most amazing demo they’d ever seen, only to be completely unreachable the following week, and every week thereafter.

Somewhat downhearted, we returned to working on fee-for-service contracts to build our company profile and cash reserves. We also investigated working with game agents around this time. One of these agents quoted the depressing statistic that only 3 per cent of game concepts/ prototypes ever make it onto store shelves. We had a one in 33 shot.

Time passed, and it was clear to us that although we had a great concept, we had not put our best foot forward in conveying that to publishers – and publishers, we were discovering, do not like to leave anything up to the imagination. To us, it seemed utterly ludicrous that an experienced producer in an experienced publishing company would reject a gameplay concept for reasons such as:

1) Not liking the characters, world, etc.

2) Finding the game too hard.

Yet these are exactly some of the responses we had over the years. I’ve always wondered whether they were shocked to receive a reply from me saying we could alter the difficulty of the game, or change the character graphics.

So 2007 rolled around, and we decided to have one last throw of the dice with Slidatron. We invested in touching up the character graphics, and worked on making some gameplay improvements here and there. Sadly we didn’t have the resources to re-do the level design, as it would have taken a significant art effort. We also reworked our proposed deal terms, to offer aggressive distribution structures – there was absolutely no contingency in the deal any more. We’d heard good things about Game Connection, and so we attended it in San Francisco while GDC was on.

Thanks to the format of Game Connection, we were able to vastly improve the quality and quantity of contacts we were meeting from publishers – rather than E3, where it’s a total lottery – you may meet any random employee from the publisher.

Game Connection went really well. Shortly after the show, we had two offers in the mix. One publisher actually emailed a distribution contract for Europe for us to sign, which essentially matched our deal terms for Europe. They were a big, reputable publisher. The only problem was that the budget from Europe alone was only half of what we needed to make the game. We also needed a US distributor. Instead, we had another offer from a publisher who was agreeing to our terms for global distribution. They were smaller, but they were prepared to give us what we needed.

Little did we know that we were about to make another ill-fated decision. Placated by assurances from the smaller publisher that they would sign on the agreed terms once they had their DS publishing license, we rejected the European distribution deal.

Months passed, the assurances continued. Eventually, they received their publishing license from Nintendo. Immediately, they told us that the market had changed, that they’d need to release it as a ‘value’ title, and that only half the budget was now on offer.

We were shattered. Truly heartbroken and bitterly disappointed at how the publishing world worked. We politely explained to the publisher that half a budget would result in half a game, rejected their offer, and thought about how to pick up the pieces.

Now that it was around August 2007, we contacted a few publishers to see where they were at with the DS market. One, who had seemed interested both at E3 2005 and Game Connection 2006, immediately jumped at the product. Within weeks, our lawyers were talking to theirs, and a long-form agreement was being thrashed out. It took a while to finalise the agreement, and just as it was, two events occurred, and to this day I am unsure if they are related:

The AUD soared from around $0.75 earlier in the year to $0.90. This 20 per cent increase suddenly meant our deal – which already had no contingency – was now worth 20 per cent less, a cost we simply couldn’t wear. So we asked the publisher for 20 per cent more money.

The publisher went completely cold, and simply stopped returning emails.

I attended Game Connection Europe 2007 in Lyon in November, just as all this was going on, and happened to bump into the guy in charge of the deal from the publisher’s side. He sat me down and explained that our game had divided his company down the middle. The production guys desperately wanted to do the game, because it was a genuinely fun and unique product. The marketing guys wanted to change direction and do some kind of casual or learning games. Evidently, the marketing guys won, and Slidatron was once again shelved. I believe that publisher has subsequently gone under, so I guess their marketing guys made the wrong choice.

In any case, this was the worst timing – right in the middle of a trade show. We had nothing really prepared for Slidatron to pitch to other publishers at the show, as the deal was on the verge of being signed as far as we knew.

So by the end of 2007, Slidatron was starting to feel like a cursed project. All things being equal, we probably should have been working on a sequel by now, and instead we were back at square one. Once again, we returned to fee-for-service work and shelved Slidatron again.

We still believed in the idea, but we felt we needed to refresh our thinking. Pitching it as Slidatron, a kids IP, wasn’t getting much traction, and publishers saw it as a slow-moving puzzle platformer. We felt we would have more success appealing to old school platform lovers – who were now in their 20s and 30s – and increasing the pace and combat action to be more like Megaman. Aside from anything else, we simply couldn’t return for another year to pitch exactly the same product to the same publishers.

In mid-2008, we wrote a game design document with the new mature sci-fi theme, and outlining the key changes that we’d make to Slidatron for it to become Fractured Soul. I took this document to Game Connection Europe 2008. It was again well received, but by now confidence in the DS market was on a downward slide, with piracy rife in Europe one of the chief concerns of publishers.

A few months later, in early 2009, I took the document to Game Connection GDC 2009, where we eventually found our publisher. With some further help from Film Victoria, a global publishing deal was signed in the months following. The game was developed from late 2009 through to mid-2010. Unfortunately, during 2010, publisher confidence in the DS market plummeted, and our publishing partner was unable to place the product with distributors.

We had a complete game that we really felt gamers would embrace, but no way to get it to them. We released a progress video on YouTube in July which received an incredibly positive response. People wanted more. They wanted the game. Unfortunately, though, we couldn’t give it to them. In late 2010, Game Connection selected Fractured Soul to be a “featured project”. This revitalised the project, but there was still too much negativity around DS.

Shortly after, however, publisher sentiment began to pick up – possibly due to the imminent release of the 3DS. In 2011, a small distributor signed on to take Fractured Soul to the world. And shortly after that, a separate publisher signed the worldwide rights to the 3DS version.

So all seemed good. However, last we heard the rights to the DS game had reverted to N3V Games, and we’ve had to revert the rights to the 3DS version as well.

At Game Connection 2012 in San Francisco, Fractured Soul was again chosen as a Selected Projects finalist – this time on 3DS. Again, this revitalised interest in the product from publishers.

Luckily, on 3DS, eShop is here. So whether we end up choosing a retail publisher or self-publishing digitally, Fractured Soul on 3DS at least, will be available to consumers in 2012, some seven years after the concept was first written up inside Endgame, or five years after first unveiling the prototype at E3.
MAJOR FEATURE: Independent developers and IP; Trials, Tribulations and Opportunities
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